An Afternoon at St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix

Steven Hsieh
Kese Chandler of St. Mary's Food Bank.
Sabine Thompson once flew to Greece to help Syrian refugees. She’s also worked with Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh and Venezuelans fleeing the crisis in their country.

Don’t even get her started on the natural disaster sites, which she runs to like a firefighter would a burning building: floods in Malawi, an earthquake in Nepal, a tsunami in Japan.

But Thompson had never worked a produce line until this past Saturday morning, when she spent two hours packing lemons and grapefruits into boxes at the St. Mary’s Food Bank warehouse in Phoenix.

Thompson was one of eight volunteers to work the early weekend shift: One woman folded boxes, two others handled turnips and potatoes. A medical student taped packages, while his classmate helped load them onto pallets. I was on tomato duty. Donning gloves and nodding to jock jams from a giant speaker, we packed about 450 fresh food boxes that morning.

St. Mary’s Food Bank has seen demand skyrocket since the novel coronavirus tanked the local economy in March, leaving tens of thousands of locals to file for unemployment, with many more expected in the near future.
The number of individuals seeking help on the St. Mary’s website has increased eightfold in March, from 3,500 people in the first two weeks to 28,000 in the last two, according to CEO Tom Kertis. Actual food distribution has about tripled, from about 500 boxes a day to 1,500.

The surge in demand has coincided with sudden volunteer cancelations. The food bank gets most of its manpower from companies and nonprofits who volunteer as groups. As many as 75 percent of those groups have canceled for coronavirus reasons. And like most institutions, St. Mary’s has been limited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing recommendations. Six feet of separation means fewer volunteers due to space constraints.

Despite the group cancelations and volunteer limitations, individuals throughout the Valley have stepped up to bring food to those in need. As of Monday, volunteer spots for St. Mary’s were completely filled through April 18. Under an executive order from Governor Doug Ducey, National Guard members are also packing boxes for St. Mary’s and other nonprofits, like the United Food Bank in Mesa.

(Especially with the new challenges, Kertis emphasized that only those in need should be picking up emergency food boxes. “We’re not here for that person who has money and just can’t stock up their pantry because the grocery store doesn’t have enough,” he said. “We’re here for people who may have lost their job, they don’t have enough money, they don’t have enough food.”)

Everyone has their own reason for volunteering. For Thompson, the need comes from personal experience. She grew up poor and her family benefited from the donated clothes and other items.

“I’ll never forget that so many strangers helped me and my family, so it’s my way of giving back now,” Thompson said.

Kese Chandler, who works for St. Mary’s, said volunteers have been more motivated than ever since the COVID-19 outbreak. Because of the high demand, Chandler said, St. Mary’s has stopped shift breaks and no one has complained.

“We put the music on, they get in a groove, and we just produce.”